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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 May, 2004, 16:00 GMT 17:00 UK
Ajaria hails the end of 'Aslandia'
By Natalia Antelava
BBC correspondent in Batumi

Militiamen in Ajaria
Abashidze's militia kept Ajaria in check

Former Ajarian President Aslan Abashidze resigned after thousands protested at his stand-off with Georgia's popular president, Mikhail Saakashvili.

Looking pale and tired, he boarded a plane to Moscow after talks with a Russian envoy on Wednesday night.

He was accompanied by his family and Russia's Security chief, Igor Ivanov.

"Aslan has fled. Ajaria is free," were the first words of Mr Saakashvili's address to the nation.

Last November, Mr Saakashvili led a peaceful revolution that ousted former President Eduard Shevardnadze.

But in Ajaria, the old guard stayed in power.

Mr Abashidze and his separatist policy was the first real challenge of Mr Saakashvili's presidency.

Many had expected war would follow Mr Abashidze's decision to blow up key bridges last Sunday, isolating the province from the rest of the country.

What they got was a bloodless revolution - the second one in six months.

'Brutal regime'

Mr Abashidze is the son of a prominent Ajarian family, who first came to power in the early 1990s.

Back then, his strongman rule ensured relative calm and spared Ajaria the civil wars and violence that loomed across the rest of Georgia.

But the stability came at a high price.
map of Georgia, showing Ajaria

Mr Abashidze's family clan took control of the region's resources.

Political opponents were thrown into jail, journalists were abused and freedom of media and expression was non-existent.

"With Aslan it was always extreme journalism," said Nestan Tseskhladze, a journalist for the Tbilisi-based Rustavi 2 television.

"It was a brutal regime. His security forces chased us, beat us, took away our tapes," he said.

State of disrepair

Ajaria is strategically located on the border with Turkey. It has a Black Sea port which exports oil and it is crucial for the transit of goods.

A lot of money came through here.

But most of it, locals say, went straight into pockets of the Abashidze family.

The gap between the few rich and thousands of poor was wider here than anywhere else in Georgia.

Aslan Abashidze
Many locals are rejoicing that Abashidze has quit the province

"I don't care if he took all the money he made off us - I am so happy that he left," said Tamaz, a 42-year-old taxi driver.

"At least he cannot steal from us any more."

Mr Abashidze's son, the mayor of Batumi, Giorgi Abashidze, had a collection of sports cars, he said. But the roads in Ajaria are so bad that he could not drive them.

"The only road without potholes is the seaside boulevard here," Tamaz said.

"So Giorgi used to close it down and race his Lamborghini back and forth on it," he said.

Reconstruction

On Thursday, Georgian security officials found arsenals of weapons in Ajaria's Ministry of Security.

They belonged to Mr Abashidze's small, but powerful, militia.

Many of them have already joined the Georgian army which has moved into the regional capital, Batumi, to take control of the streets and disarmament.

Rail links have been restored, the construction of the new bridges is underway and, in June, Ajarians will vote for their new leader.

Like the rest of Georgia, Ajaria is poor and faces overwhelming problems.

But thousands of those celebrating in the streets of Batumi say that the main obstacle is now out of the way.

Aslandia is no more.


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